Every month I feature a tattoo shop here in “Inked Out,” but this month I have a pretty interesting story about a tattoo artist named Joseph Ari Aloi, who also goes by the name JK5.
Aloi he didn’t stop at just tattooing. He’s also a designer, writer, toy creator, media franchiser, filmmaker and Flowbot leader. What’s a Flowbot? They’re actually an “archetypal band of fantastically mythological and heroic space adventuring characters,” which were produced by a company called Kidrobot back in 2007, but were inspired by Aloi’s reality and life experiences around his adoption, birth-parent reunion and artistic development. Yes, Joseph Ari Aloi is indeed a jack of all trades!
A little background on Aloi: He earned his Bachelor’s Degree for Fine Arts in Illustration from Rhode Island School of Design. A year later, he opened his own custom tattoo studio in Pleasantville, NY, where he created his unique style and approach to letterforms, which he kept open until 2002. A couple of years after that, Aloi teamed up with Matt Clark, founder of the Creative Agency Houston, to publish Subconsciothesaurusnex, a book that documented Aloi’s life and work from 1977 until 1999. Soon after, brands and ad agencies started to catch onto the power of his visual candy, and began hiring him to collaborate on many of their ventures. Some collaborators included Nike, Converse, Camel, Tylenol, Timex, Barney’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Mishka NYC, to name a few. From there, Aloi’s artwork has been exhibited in galleries in New York and Tokyo. That’s not all! He has also collaborated with the late Heath Ledger’s production company, We Are The Masses, in developing a media franchise encompassing feature films, children’s TV, video games, mobile apps, new media, clothing, books and toys centered around the Flowbots creation.
Today, Aloi continues to build his multi-media franchise. He recently started tattooing at the legendary Daredevil Tattoo in NYC. He continues to build on his Flowbot Transmedia project, and he has two books to be released by Rizzoli Publishing. One of the books features 26 of the world’s most inventive and multidisciplinary tattoo artists, and should be out sometime this fall, while the second book is set to be a retrospective monograph of his life and work, and should be out by 2013.
This month, he will be showcasing 30 of his brand new scratchboard works with an art show at the Blast Gallery in Teaneck, NJ, from Oct. 1 until Oct. 29. He recently called me to talk about the show, and here’s what he had to say:
So, Joseph, you’re a jack-of-all-trades! On your bio, the list keeps going and going…
Yeah, man! I’ve just been riding the waves since the womb ride in 1970, and just applying myself in every direction possible. I’ve just been drawing and writing my whole life. I started tattooing in my senior year of art school in ‘94. So, hopefully, it’s an ever expanding organic range that all starts with the written word and the drawn image and things that manifest from there. But yeah, kind of all over the place.
Would you say that you’re predominantly an artist first before a tattoo artist?
Yeah, I would always say that! I mean, I’ve always drawn. Ever since I’ve been able to hold a crayon I’ve been drawing and writing, and just kind of knew that was my path from the earliest of signs and ages. So, yeah, I consider myself an artist long before and long after tattooing.
Tattooing for me is a gift of a vocation, and it gave me an incredible vehicle and identity and a world of aesthetic information. It was a total gift to a fucked up, unique adoptee out of art school who didn’t want to do anything commercial and had a burning passion for just creating, and I found the embodiment of tattooing and I’ve been tattooing ever since September of ‘94.
What inspired you to create this unique style that you’ve adopted? You’re very creative with words and letters.
Yeah, words and language and penmanship and letter forms have always been a huge part of my work. It’s always just evolving and growing. From rendering Gene Simmons’s signature in 1977 to forging my parents signature so that I can get out of certain things in grammar school to keeping black books. While all of my friends were writers and bombing all over the city, I grew up an hour north of Manhattan, and graffiti was a huge inspiration, but I was too much of a pussy to get up, and my strict Italian father would’ve kicked my ass. So, I guess I channel my love and study of those letter forms and sort of the energy of graffiti and the metaphysics of how words and letters get interlocked and designed and created.
I was always just doing my own thing with it. I’ve always just assimilated and absorbed everything from the outside world, and just channeled it through my own practice, my own vision, my own need to explore and experiment, and unique, distinct in itself is a facet of my work. It’s kind of always growing and changing, and having a presence and an energy that is completely of and for itself, and sort of stealthily assimilating from so many sources, and at the same time, really just illustrating my own internal journey and everything that is coming through this crazy and chaotic brain, it’s been a survival instinct and mechanism from the very early days.
How did these opportunities to work with companies like Nike or Saks Fifth Avenue come about?
I’ve been fortunate to meet and tattoo and therefore have rad commercial opportunities to apply myself in these directions with some amazing companies and some amazing people. It all comes down to networking and being in the city. What’s listed in my bio—those were people who were in my chair, a really great vibe ensued and unfolded and a dialogue just grew out of it and those opportunities just happened really naturally just in conversations, and my desire to apply myself in a million directions, and I’m just elemental and organic.
I just try to adjust and adhere to whatever the assignment, whatever the team, whatever the parameters are with that experience. Eighteen years tattooing, adjusting to people’s parameters and sort of working with a real structured assignment, and people like Barney’s and Timex and Marc Jacobs just kind of just emailed me out of the blue, just knowing my work and were fans of it, and they just wanted me to do this or that. So, it all just happens really naturally, and the network and the cauldron that is NYC and Brooklyn and shops I found myself tattooing at have been amazing for just that platform.
Now, I’m looking at these pictures that you’ll be displaying at Blast Gallery in Teaneck, NJ, for the month of October, and I couldn’t stop thinking, How much acid did Joseph have to take to paint these?
(Laughs) I love that question! Not much, dude! Honestly, I tried it a couple of times in college—my wife and I went to the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence in the early ‘90s—and it wasn’t for me. I tripped out and had really bad trips, and as my father would say, “It’s not what you’re eating, it’s what’s eating you.” It’s mentally and psychologically at that point in my life before I got the letter from my birth mother, and things got centered and whole and my identity was revealed through this destined unfolding story. So, I wasn’t in a good place to take acid (laughs)!
But there’s something very spiritual and medicinal about marijuana. I’m a big fan! I had some better experiences on mushrooms for sure, but acid was way too much and, honestly, it’s funny you asked that question because my professors in art school always accused me of being on all kinds of psychedelics because of my work, but somehow, those doors of perception have just dissolved more and more through my own path of exploration and discovery. I never really needed it.
So, you have 30 scratchboards showing at Blast, can people buy them?
I actually made over 100 since June, and I chose 30 for this show, and yes, people can buy them. I going to price them really low for what they are and hopefully people really dig them and they move, but they’re really spontaneous, automatic, stream of consciousness etchings that are sort of a sensually etched, consistently moving fluid line, much like tattooing, through a layer of black wax that reveals this rainbow gradient and/or the prism sparkle paper. They’re these little kid’s kits, man! My wife’s sister had this rad kid’s clothing, book, toy store in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and I got a bunch of this for Christmas, these little doodle pads…
Is that what that is? I remember these from when I was a kid! They come with a wooden stick to scratch the black wax off?
That’s what it is, dude! Only this is a little bit more of a refined and sophisticated version rather than the MacGuyver makeshift ones we made in grammar school back in the day, but same concept, and the response so far has been really wonderful, so I hope people dig it! All my dear fans and homies and fellow tattoo artists and certain galleries that I’ve been billing with think it’s the purest and strongest work of mine to date.
The problem is, they’re really small in scale, but I’m trying to get larger uncut sheets directly from the company, this cute little family run company out of Massachusetts called Scratch Art. I just called them up and said, “I’m an artist in Brooklyn. I’ve got some big shows coming up. I’m a big fan of your product. Is there any chance you’d sell me some uncut sheets?” They have to come from somewhere!
They said, “Sounds cool, man! You just have to purchase 35 minimum and they’re $3 each. So, I’m working on getting those for another solo show that I have coming up in the city in November.
Good luck with the show at Blast and good luck with all of your upcoming adventures. You’re a very interesting person and I thoroughly enjoyed speaking to you, but before I let you go, I have one last question to ask you: “JK5”… What the hell does it stand for?
(Laughs) That’s the question every interviewer asks, and it’s so funny! I try to come up with a different angle or more adjectives. Basically, it started with Joey and Karen, my sister and I. It was always “JK,” and the “5” has lots of layers and dimensions of meanings and acronyms that change and evolve depending on the context, but it’s “Joey and Karen,” “Jedi Knight,” “Just Kreate” and “JK5” was sort of a nickname that tattoo homies gave me from Philly when I first started in ‘94 because I was just drawing like the wind and I had all these sketch books with original work in them before I was even tattooing. And I’m a huge Star Wars nerd so “Jedi Knight,” when I eventually tattooed it on my left wrist in 1995, that really stuck. And then the “5” is everything from acknowledgement and respect, a good solid handshake with your bro, a nickel bag, the fifth dimension being the absolute spiritual dimension, the five senses, the five Buddhist elements, three the magic number plus two, the Gemini that I am. It’s a powerful number in all mythology and all cultural adapted religions.
You can catch JK5’s work at Blast Gallery in Teaneck, NJ, located at 445a Cedar Lane throughout October. For more info, you can call the gallery at (201) 530-5666 or log onto blastgallery.com.
You can also see all of JK5’s work on his website jk5nyc.com, if you’re interested in tattoos or buying some of his work, you can email him at email@example.com.